Sunday 12 February 2023

Bloodlines: Exploring Family History Through Poetry: A Creative Writing PhD

By Karen Powell-Curtis

I didn’t follow the conventional route to a PhD: I was fifty-six when I collected my student ID card and attended the PGR induction event. Forty years earlier, the school careers teacher told me that O-levels were my academic limit and suggested a ‘nice job in an office.’ I didn’t like school and couldn’t wait to move into the grown-up world of work so that’s what I did with my eight O-levels. In my early twenties, I felt that something was missing in my life – it was education. My return to study led to an A-level, two degrees, a PGCE and a career as a primary teacher. Still hooked on education, I followed my interest in Creative Writing and completed a Certificate in Creative Writing followed by an MA. I thought about a PhD for several years but life and imposter syndrome got in the way. 

Eventually, I approached Jonathan Taylor with an idea and, with his encouragement, registered for a PhD in Creative Writing. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My PhD gave me the opportunity to combine my three passions, or obsessions, depending on your point of view: poetry, family history, and academic study. 

Bloodlines is a collection of poems and combines memoir and matrilineal family history through the generations back to my seventh great-grandmother. As a child, I was curious about how family members were related to me and to each other, and the questions I asked were the first steps towards my fascination with genealogical research. The inspiration for the poems came from archival documents, photographs, artefacts and memories of my mother’s memories. 

There are several themes running through the collection including motherhood, secrecy, identity and loss, and there is a sequence of poems exploring how mental health issues have been experienced across the generations. There are poems that reflect on the artefacts and memories we leave behind, and some that touch on realm of the uncanny. Throughout the collection there is a hint of ghostliness, a sense of being haunted by the voices and the psychological trauma across the generations. At the heart of Bloodlines is a sequence of poems about Lilla, my maternal grandmother. For as long as I can remember, I have felt a special connection to Lilla, although I only knew her through photographs and my mother’s memories. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I imagined her as my guardian angel, watching over me and keeping me safe, a spiritual grandmother. These poems are my attempt to understand her life and death, and my feelings towards her.

For me, the most challenging part of the PhD was writing the commentary. My thesis was practice-led and I focussed on issues that had arisen through my genealogical research and through writing the poems. This led me to research and write chapters on topics that were new to me, including life-writing, the use of ‘I’ in poetry, and found poetry. To use Margaret Atwood’s words, Bloodlines involved both excavating and setting down the past (Negotiating with the Dead, p.xix).  Throughout my research and writing, my ancestors, in a sense, lived alongside me and, at the same time, I have been able to lay their ghosts to rest. For me, particularly with regard to Lilla, Bloodlines is an act of remembrance and of closure.

The following poem was inspired by a photograph of Lilla on her wedding day.

Wedding Day, 1922

Her father, in crisp suit and hat,
offers his arm and Lilla lowers her eyes 
to focus on her steps towards the church.

With the waterfall of carnations and ferns
to occupy her anxious fingers
and the folds of her veil to blur
the sharp lines of her thoughts
she could easily be mistaken
for any nervous young bride. 

In the front pew, her fur-draped mother
closes her mind against doubt,
watches the groom across the aisle,
approves of his polished shoes.

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